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The Writing Life: Debra Winger
Through writing, a movie actress finds yet another road to creative fulfillment.

By Debra Winger
Sunday, July 20, 2008

It is wholly unnatural to wake up and sit in front of a mirror for two hours every morning, yet this is what a film actor is meant to do. If you are working on stage, at least you are spared until the afternoon or evening. The ritual of applying make-up and fixing your hair can feel like a truly creative imagining of a character. Of course, there are days when it just feels like triage.

As the process of writing my first book unfolded, I was reminded of something I'd heard once from an older actress. On each birthday, she said, we ought to give away one of our mirrors. In this way, by the time we reached an age at which we appreciated the more essential aspects of life, we'd be left with only a small reflection with which to check our teeth for bits of food. I don't know if I want to be that strict, but the idea is appealing.

As an actress, I feel I'm working more with a prism than a mirror. In a poem entitled "Monimia to Philocles," Lord Hervey captured it perfectly when he wrote:

So in the prism, to the deluded eye,

Each pictur'd trifle takes a rainbow dye;

The idea that a small gesture can carry myriad messages is one of the most compelling aspects of acting for me. When we think of ourselves -- our own internal "characters" -- it is easy to visualize ourselves as many different people at once. We contain facets. The uniformity and continuity of our personalities come, ideally, in the way light flows through a prism.

Creating a character for film is a tricky endeavor. The actor's "I" must be present but not in the forefront of the character's "I" -- perhaps just a little less visible, like stars in the daytime sky. But since it can take a long time to shoot a film, holding that balance is delicate work, and too often misunderstood.

In shooting a film, the time away from the camera can be treacherous. As you transform yourself into a character, you change the physical and emotional ways that help you make it through a day, but the toll to maintain that change can be extremely high.

People are often harsh on actors who stay "in character" throughout a film. But I've always seen it as a protective device, a fine way to trick the brain. There is an unmooring required for the successful embodiment of a character, and the mental and emotional processes are so intermingled with the physical that they cannot be separated. You need to become that character completely.

To imagine -- to join reality with the life of the mind -- to carve, shape, embody, paint, write or otherwise mold something from nothing, is a familiar process to me. And no doubt to you. When we are free and young and have no other way to send our schemes into the world, we often make believe. But the "making" doesn't stop there. It continues. One makes a life, after all. One makes do, makes time, makes out -- and in all of this, the important part is in the making. I have lived in many places and met many people who have made life their art. Seeing life lived in this way inspired me to make a new start. A theater from a barn, a soup from a garden, a book from an idea -- these are all expressions of the same dynamic impulse. It's that impulse that led me to write.

We are all, in so many different ways, telling stories. Whether it be in politics (where tales can be really tall) or at the family table, in society or popular culture, storytelling has always existed.

The trend toward celebrity culture is often at great odds with the actor who is working to tell a story, to hold a character aloft. For me, the moments between the words "action" and "cut" were some of the freest I have known. The tether of experience was there, but there was a weightlessness of the imagination that was liberating. Ultimately, however, the script an actor enlivens is someone else's words. I began to think that I might want to make a place in which I come back to myself, use my own words. Writing became a way to do that.

As I began the process of putting together a book, some of the elements I had always loved best about acting seemed to come into play and some of the things I liked least fell away. First, I experienced a seismic shift toward the making of something tangible -- something I could pick up, put down. More important, writing allowed me to look at the characters around me from the point of view of a unified self. And with the exception of the jacket art, I was spared the physical scrutiny of someone else's vision of who I could or would be. Writing seemed so much freer an experience than acting. Or perhaps a distillation of that time between "action" and "cut." I found myself writing clearly without worrying about which facet of me was writing what. In some ways, writing energized me to think of acting again, the book being a sort of clearinghouse of faces I have known and reflected.

Sitting in front of that mirror every morning for two hours for so many years has deeply affected me. Today, I crave the untouched face, the age-appropriate eyes and the fully embodied performance on film. I want to move on to a conversation about women as we are, not how we can make it look as if we are.

I have now discovered how similar the two creative endeavors of writing and acting are, although each seems to begin as such a different craft. My writing was a solitary task for the most part. The demands were so highly personal that the work threatened at times to overexpose. But the writer, like the actor, is a prism. In writing, I became all the faces I have ever dreamed, encountered or imagined.

In writing, I am not my face. ยท

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